Beijing vs Shanghai, Which Chinese City Should I Travel To?

Shanghai Skyline at sunrise - Beijing vs Shanghai
Shanghai skyline at sunrise
Great Wall of China Tour, Ming Tombs, Beijing vs Shanghai
Ming Tombs near the Great Wall of China

“Which Chinese city should I travel to?” “Which is better?”

If you’re traveling to China, you’ve most likely asked yourself this question. If you have very little time to explore this large country, you’ve definitely have.

Most people traveling to China decide to visit both. I highly recommend going to both. A lot of the tourists I met or overheard while in Beijing and Shanghai tended to spend more time in Beijing than Shanghai, probably because it’s the capital of China and the best sections of the Great Wall of China are nearby. But that doesn’t mean Beijing is the best city to visit. Of course, it all depends on the person. So here it is, Beijing vs Shanghai.

beijing vs china, old vs new

The Great Wall of China Mutianyu Section - Beijing vs Shanghai
The Great Wall of China Mutianyu Section

The two cities are so different that they can at times feel like two different countries. The biggest reason for that, I believe, is because of the looks. Beijing is a large city that has a lot of history to it. You can see it in many of the buildings. Beijing is said to be at least 3,000 years old while Shanghai was founded in 1291. That’s old, but compared to Beijing, it’s still a baby. That means that Beijing is packed with history, history a lot older than that of Western nations like America.

Shanghai Skyline from the Bund - Shanghai vs Beijing
Shanghai Skyline from the Bund

Shanghai is more modern with a sleek skyline that matches western cities such as New York City. Beijing is so spread out that there isn’t really a skyline, which can be a relief if you’re tired of being surrounded my enormous structures so close together.

The urban population of Beijing is around 18.5 million while the population of Shanghai is between 20 and 24 million. Shanghai’s number is still argued, but either way, it’s definitely the largest city in China.

Beijing vs Shanghai: Pollution

Pollution in Beijing, Summer Palace - Shanghai vs Beijing
The pollution in Beijing from the Summer Palace

If you’ve watched the news at all in the last few years, you know that the pollution in Beijing has been quite bad recently. When I was in Beijing in October, it got so bad that you could barely see the buildings just a block away. While hiking up the small hill at the Summer Palace, it looked as if we were surrounded by fog. It definitely wasn’t fog.

Of course, Shanghai has pollutions problems as well. But it’s not as bad. While I was there, I could see clouds in the sky most of the time, and the Skyline holding the Oriental Pearl Tower was always clear.

Beijing vs Shanghai: Things To Do

The Summer Palace Beijing, China - Shanghai vs Beijing
The Summer Palace in Beijing

There are completely different things to do in Shanghai than there is in Beijing. As mentioned, Beijing is a historical city. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that things to do in Beijing include historical spots like the Summer Palace, The Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China, a landmark you absolutely don’t want to miss. In Shanghai, because it’s a lot more modern, popular things to do include going to the French Concession, admiring the Pudong skyline from the Bund across the river, shopping on Nanjing Rd, and going to the Pudong area to go up the Oriental Pearl Tower or Shanghai Tower (which so happens to now be the second tallest building in the world).

At times, it may seem like you can do the same things in Shanghai as you can in any other city, only with a different view. Beijing, on the other hand, is full of experiences a little more on the rare side.

Panorama of Shanghai's Skyline at night - Shanghai vs Beijing


It all depends on what you want to do. A history fanatic is obviously going to prefer Beijing while an architecture and city enthusiast may choose Shanghai.  Katie Pine, an expat in Wuhan, explains that Shanghai seems to have more character to it. It’s not as polluted, and it has the perfect blend of Chinese and Western architecture, especially European. Because of this, she prefers Shanghai. On the other end, New Zealander Bruno Unger chooses Beijing because of his love with the rich history Beijing offers. He’s likes that some of the Beijing sites are older than anything man made in his own country.

Still, if time allows it, try to visit both. A trip to China isn’t complete without seeing Beijing and Shanghai, in my opinion. Only then can you really know which city you prefer.

Which do you like best?

If you want more information to decide your decision on Beijing vs Shanghai, compare my trip to Beijing to my Shanghai, China trip.

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